Digital Paternalism: A Recap of our Conversation about Australia’s Cashless Debit Card with Eve Vincent

On November 23, 2020, the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice’s Digital Welfare State and Human Rights Project hosted the third virtual conversation in its “Transformer States: A Conversation Series on Digital Government and Human Rights” series. Christiaan van Veen and Victoria Adelmant interviewed Eve Vincent, senior lecturer in the Department of Anthropology at Macquarie University and author of a crucial report on the lived experiences of one of the first Cashless Debit Card trials in Ceduna, South Australia.

The Cashless Debit Card is a debit card which is currently used in parts of Australia to deliver benefit income to welfare recipients. Vitally, it is a tool of compulsory income management: the card “quarantines” 80% of a recipient’s payment, preventing this 80% from being withdrawn as cash and blocking attempted purchases of alcohol or gambling products. It is similar to, and intensifies, a previous scheme of debit card-based income management, known as the “Basics Card.” This earlier card was introduced after a 2007 report into child sexual abuse in indigenous communities in Australia’s Northern Territory which identified alcoholism, substance abuse, and gambling as major causes of such abuse. One of the measures taken was the requirement that indigenous communities’ benefit income be received on a Basics Card which quarantined 50% of benefit payments. The Basics Card was later extended to non-indigenous welfare recipients, but it remained disproportionately targeted at indigenous communities.

Following a 2014 report by mining magnate Andrew Forrest on inequality between indigenous and non-indigenous groups in Australia, the government launched the Cashless Debit Card to gradually replace the Basics Card. The Cashless Debit Card would quarantine 80% of benefit income on the card, and the card would block spending where alcohol is sold or where gambling takes place. Initial trials were targeted, again, in remote indigenous areas. The communities in the first trials were presented as parasitic on the welfare state and in crisis with regard to alcohol abuse, assault, and gambling. It was argued that drastic intervention was warranted: the government should step in to take care of these communities as they were unable to look after themselves. Income management would assist in this paternalistic intervention, fostering responsibility and curbing alcoholism and gambling through blocking their purchases. Many of Eve’s research participants found these justifications offensive and infantilizing. The Cashless Debit Card is now being trialed in more populous areas with more non-indigenous people, and the narrative has shifted. Justifications for cards for non-indigenous people have focused more on the need to teach financial literacy and budgeting skills.

Beyond the humiliating underlying stereotypes, the Cashless Debit Card itself leads cardholders feeling stigmatized. While the non-acceptance of Basics Cards at certain shops had led to prominent “Basics Card not accepted here” signs, the Cashless Debit Card was intended to be more subtle. It is integrated with EFTPOS technology, meaning it can theoretically be used in any shop with one of these ubiquitous card-reading devices. ETPOS terminals in casinos or pubs are blocked, but these establishments can arrange with the government to have some discretion. A pub can arrange to allow Cashless Debit Card-holders to pay for food but not alcohol, for example, thereby not excluding them entirely. Despite this purported subtlety, individuals reported feeling anxious about using the card as the technology was proving unreliable and inconsistent, accepted one day but not the next. When the card was declined, sometimes seemingly randomly, this was deeply humiliating. Card-holders would have to gather their shopping and return it to the shelves under the judging gaze of others, potentially of people they know.

Separately, some card-holders had to use public computers to log into their accounts to check their cards’ balance, highlighting the reliance of such schemes on strong digital infrastructure and on individuals’ access to connected devices. But some Cashless Debit Card-holders were quite positive about the card: there is, of course, a diversity of opinions and experiences. Some found that the card’s fortnightly cycle had helped them with budgeting and thought the app upon which they could check their balance was a user-friendly and effective budgeting tool.

The Cashless Debit Card scheme is run by a company named Indue, continuing decades-long trends of outsourcing welfare delivery. Many participants in Eve’s research spoke positively of their experience with Indue, finding staff on helplines to be helpful and efficient. But many objected to the principle that the card is privatized and that profits are being made on the basis of their poverty. The Cashless Debit Card costs AUD 10,000 per participant per year to administer: many card-holders were outraged that such an expense is outlaid to try to control how they spend their very meager income. Recently, the biggest four banks in Australia and government-owned Australia Post have been in talks about taking over the management of the scheme. This raises an interesting parallel with South Africa, where social grants were originally paid through a private provider but, following a scandal regarding the tender process and the financial exploitation of poor grant recipients, public providers stepped in again.

As an anthropologist, Eve’s research takes as a starting point the importance of listening to the people affected and foregrounding their lived experience, resonating with a common approach to human rights research. Interestingly, many Cashless Debit Card-holders used the language of human rights to express indignation about the scheme and what it represents. Reminiscent of Sally Engle Merry’s work on the ‘vernacularization’ of human rights, card-holders invoked human rights in a manner quite specific to the Aboriginal Australian context and history. Eve’s research participants often compared the Cashless Debit Card trials to the past, when the wages of indigenous peoples had been stolen and their access to money was tightly controlled. They referred to that time as the “time before rights”; before legislative equal citizen rights had been gained. Today, they argued, now that indigenous communities have rights, this kind of intervention and control of communities by the government is unacceptable. As one of Eve’s research participants put it, the government has through the Cashless Debit Card “taken away our rights.”

December 4, 2020. Victoria Adelmant, Director of the Digital Welfare State & Human Rights Project at the Center for Human Rights and Global Justice at NYU School of Law.